Robocalls: What we learned from Michael Sona's trial

The trial of former Conservative staffer Micheal Sona has revealed some intriguing new details about misleading robocalls during the last federal election, but three years later and after four days of witness testimony plenty of questions remain.

Robocalls trial sheds some light, but closing arguments come with questions remaining

The trial of former Conservative staffer Michael Sona has revealed some intriguing new details about misleading robocalls during the last federal election, but plenty of questions remain. (Laura Payton/CBC)

The trial of former Conservative staffer Micheal Sona has revealed some intriguing new details about misleading robocalls during the last federal election, but three years later and after four days of witness testimony plenty of questions remain.

Sona last week saw a parade of his former friends and colleagues testifying against him. Their testimony fleshed out information already recorded through court documents filed by Elections Canada investigators since the May 2, 2011 phone call sent Guelph, Ont., voters to the wrong polling station.

Sona, who was 22 at the time, faces up to five years in prison if he's convicted of trying to keep people from voting. He maintains he had nothing to do with the robocalls.

Among the revelations last week:

  • Some Conservative supporters got misleading calls, leading campaign manager Ken Morgan to ask deputy campaign manager Andrew Prescott to stop the calls.
  • Prescott testified there was another call set to go out.
  • Sona's lawyer, Norm Boxall, suggested Prescott may have had something to do with the calls.
  • The phone list used for the misleading calls may not have come from the Guelph Conservative campaign.

Crown prosecutor Croft Michaelson walked Judge Gary Hearn through the days leading up to the election, with witnesses painting a picture of a campaign team livid with what they felt was unfair treatment by the Liberal incumbent's campaign team.

'Shallow comparison'

The biggest single chunk of testimony came from Matt Meier, the owner of RackNine, the system used by the culprit to unleash an automated call to 6,738 people.

Meier dug out information from his servers that could help identify who was behind Pierre Poutine, the pseudonym used to register the disposable cellphone used to make the robocalls. The Conservative Party confirmed early in the investigation that the numbers called seemed to come from one of its lists, but Meier's testimony countered that assertion.

Conservative staffer Matthew McBain testified that he was the one who compared the Pierre Poutine list with those uploaded by Prescott.

The list, he said during Boxall's cross-examination, matched pretty closely with identified non-supporters, or “people that were known to be unlikely to vote for the Conservative Party in the election.”

“I did pretty shallow comparison” and was satisfied that there was a striking similarity, McBain said.

Liberal list?

But Meier's testimony showed it's possible the list came from somewhere else. That suggests a focus on people with access to CIMS, the Conservative campaign database — the party controls access by issuing accounts to certain officials nationally and in each riding — could have missed alternate possibilities.

The pseudonym used to register a phone that made the misleading robocalls in Guelph, Ont., in the 2011 federal election is thought to come from Pierre's Poutine, a downtown Guelph poutine shop. (Laura Payton/CBC)
Michaelson started picking individual numbers and asking Meier whether those phone numbers appeared elsewhere, but Boxall conceded that the numbers didn't exist in any of the lists uploaded elsewhere by Prescott.

The Guelph Conservative campaign used robocalls to reach supporters through an existing account belonging to Prescott.

Two former Conservative staffers testified Sona bragged to them about the calls and that he'd gotten the list of phone numbers from the Liberals. Mitchell Messom said Sona told him he had called the Liberal campaign, impersonated a Liberal and had them send him the list. Rebecca Docksteader said Sona had told her and a colleague that he had a friend who owed him a favour who would provide him the list.

But the court also heard from Prescott that Conservative supporters got misleading calls too.

Pierre Poutine called Conservatives 

Prescott was expected to be the star witness, having reached an immunity agreement with the Crown earlier this year.

In the end, it wasn't clear why he needed that immunity. Prescott didn't appear to say anything to implicate himself, though he said he'd seen a disposable cellphone on Sona's desk, and that Sona had indicated serious interest in how to make untraceable robocalls.

Prescott said the campaign office was getting complaints from supporters that they were getting calls about their polling stations moving, or about the polls closing early. Morgan, he said, at that point told him they had to stop the calls and gave him a log-in name and password to RackNine that wasn't familiar to him.

Prescott said that he logged in and deleted another round of calls that was set to go out.

Through his cross-examinations, Boxall presented an alternate theory of the crime. He questioned several witnesses about Prescott, asking Meier in particular whether he could exclude Prescott as the voice behind Pierre Poutine. Meier said that he couldn't. Boxall also questioned Prescott about his history working at Future Shop in the cellphone department over two holiday seasons, suggesting he would be motivated to incriminate Sona so that he would be clear of any allegations. 

It will be up to Hearn, the judge, to decide whether Sona had a part in planning and executing the misleading robocalls. He has already said he won't render a verdict this week.

In considering the verdict, he may have to deal with some remaining questions that last week's testimony left unanswered:

  • Who set up the RackNine account? The testimony didn't cover that.
  • Did Sona get some of the wrong details when he told the story? Messom said Sona said he bought the prepaid, or vanilla, credit cards at a gas station. They were purchased at Shoppers Drug Mart. Who got the location wrong?
  • Who bought the Future Shop phone and vanilla cards? Michaelson asked other officials from the campaign whether they had bought those items. They said no.


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